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“It’s Like A Fish Not Knowing He’s in Water”

Joseph Croskey, a member of Christ Church in Oil City, is experienced in the slow work of dismantling racism in a predominantly white community.

“Even close friends here in rural western Pennsylvania will say ‘I don’t understand what Black people are talking about. I’ve got it hard, so does everybody else, and I don’t do anything against Black people,’” says Croskey, a professor at Clarion University where he is director of the university advising center. “When people say that, I think, ‘Well, that’s because there are no Black people around here.’”

Croskey, who was elected to the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania’s Standing Committee in November, serves on the partnership’s Commission to Dismantle Racism and Discrimination. He says that systemic racism can go unnoticed by white people who benefit from it, but can have a profound effect on people of color.

“It’s hard for all of us to wrap our head around this. It’s like a fish not knowing he’s in water,” he says. “You’re surrounded by it all the time and you don’t even think about it. And so it’s hard to illustrate the challenges sometimes, but it’s nevertheless felt by minorities. And it’s not always because some idiot says a silly word that makes people feel bad. It’s just a feeling that people get.”

Croskey believes the church has an especially important role to play in illustrating the effects of systemic racism within our communities and working to unravel those systems.

“The church’s role, I think, is to spread love and demonstrate the love of Christ here in this world,” he says. “And some of that might mean standing against some of the things that are going on, and standing for equity and justice. And it might mean helping to explain in a way that is understandable and relatable the challenges that are yet to be overcome, so that we here in the U. S. can live up to our code of liberty and justice for all.”

He knows this message rankles some people. “There are always two sides of the church: one side that’s progressive and the other side that asks why we need to change,” he says. But he is hopeful nonetheless, and some of his hope is rooted in the success of his own initiatives.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis policeman, he worked with others to organize a vigil in Clarion. Later, a colleague invited him to participate in a talk at the local YWCA in Oil City discussing what minorities have faced living in western Pennsylvania. More recently, he had the “wild idea” to invite the Partnership Dioceses to partner with Clarion University in its annual Juneteenth service. “I woke up one morning and said, ‘I should ask the bishop!’ So I did, and the bishop was really generous.”

June 19, known as Juneteenth, is the traditional commemoration date of the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, declaring all enslaved people in Confederate territory to be free, but it was not until June 19, 1865, that federal troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were liberated.

The 2021 Juneteenth Freedom Day service was held online, and included remarks from Bishop Sean and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. “I want to thank Clarion University and Professor Joseph Croskey, who has been working on this Juneteenth work for a number of years, but as a faithful Episcopalian wanted to do it in collaboration with these two remarkable dioceses,” Curry said.

The service was “more than well received,” Croskey says, and he has already placed planning the 2022 service on his “to-do list.”

“It’s our job to make visible the love of Christ, and it’s our job to make visible the things that are barriers to that love,” he says. “And racial injustice is a significant barrier to the love of Christ being transmitted to the world.”